To be sure, fighter- and attack-aircraft crews praise drones, which they see as having carved out a vital place in modern air forces. They also see where drones might hit a set of design hurdles. The first would be to develop a full mix of sensors and a means to fuse all of the gathered data together, so that a remote pilot might have an idea of what is happening to, and around, an aircraft in a distant piece of sky. This technology does not exist. Even if a sensor suite were created to inhale this information instantly, detractors might say that no one could write the algorithms to handle the real-time permutations required for a remotely piloted aircraft to assess risk and make decisions as quickly as a human. Moreover, some of what happens in the mind of a pilot in a cockpit is guided by feel for his aircraft, something that comes from ability, training and experience. How do you capture that in an app?
The second design hurdle has to do with the limits of compromise. To make a drone more maneuverable, it would need a larger engine. A larger engine drives up size and weight, which means the aircraft must carry more fuel and will most likely lose in-flight loiter time. More sensors would probably change the profile of a drone, increasing its radar reflection and reducing its stealth. Almost every time features are added, the drone changes, and those changes come with costs.
But the sensors and the software and the push-pull tension inherent in drone design are only part of it. Captain Dale Horan, a career Navy fighter pilot who recently served on a deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq as the commander of Carrier Air Wing 9, has an accommodating view about the technology and the programs that could be created. The real limit, he says, might not lie at the programmer’s cubicle. If the right sensor suite existed so that a pilot flying an aircraft remotely could see what he needs to see, and “if you have a high enough data rate, an algorithm probably can be generated to put the airplane in the right piece of sky to counter that threat.” (It is not lost on pilots, or anyone else, that skeptics of the computer age once said no machine could ever best the masters at chess.) But then came the catch. “If the net is jammed or the data link is bad, that drone is not going to be able to make that correction,” Horan says.single page